Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly precipitate an unparalleled reduction in traffic fatalities. And as someone who is deeply disturbed by the sheer magnitude of carnage our society is willing to tolerate for the sake of motorists’ convenience, I absolutely welcome this change. However, while Voltaire cautions us to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, we are at the precipice of an incredibly troubling convention to be embedded into the state of our transportation system. I am of course referring to Mercedes-Benz’s announcement that they will be prioritizing the lives of vehicle occupants over all other people using the street. I wish to explore the disconcerting implications of elevating the value of customers’ lives over those of bystanders, and moreover, the general decline in our collective ability to distinguish between moral and economic philosophies.
Content advisory: this post contains reference to police violence.
Baton Rouge, four days after a police officer fatally shot a subdued Alton Sterling: protestors take to the streets to demand justice in the name of yet another black man executed by the state. Police warn protestors not to walk in the street. There are no sidewalks. Prominent activist DeRay McKesson is arrested, along with a hundred or so other protestors.
Jane Jacob’s Death and Life forewarns of the gradual erosion of public spaces, and ultimately the privatization of social spaces. Similarly, the public spaces that remain have since trended towards the exclusion of those who have not purchased membership into the club of automobile ownership—in a sense, its own form of privatizing public space.
Moments after Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director, Paul Steely White, opened the Vision Zero Cities conference by imploring the audience to regard Vision Zero not as a mere slogan, but as an achievable target, NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, sullied the room’s enthusiasm by flatly stating that the goal, while laudable, was in fact impossible. The commissioner’s skeptical assessment, while disappointing—and as I will discuss momentarily, false—was ultimately unsurprising. But I would venture to guess that beyond the circles of activists, academics, and experts who better understand the nature of traffic violence, Bratton’s sentiment is largely shared by the general public. So long as people are walking, bicycling, and driving in close proximity to one another, won’t there always be the occasional confluence of circumstances that will tragically end in the death or serious injury of someone?
It is difficult to pinpoint a single idea or experience that led me to believe that our current allocation of street uses is inherently unjust. There was no epiphanic “a-ha!” moment, nor a sudden catalyst which concretized my convictions. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult to explain my perspective, which is admittedly quite distant from the conventional viewpoint. In light of this, any attempt to boil down the essence of my beliefs into a satisfactory starting point has proved to be quite challenging.
In my attempts to do just that however, I kept returning to this one point which is necessary to understand my views. That is, there is no such thing as absolute neutrality. Now, I don’t just mean this in the obvious sense, in that a person can never fully remove their own self-interest and personal experience from consideration in pursuing true impartiality. What I mean is that all systems, by their very nature, harbor implicit biases which favor some things over others. All systems have incentives and disincentives woven into their very fabric. Moreover, there is an implied balance of power in any given framework. To claim that something is neutral can only be true relative to a given system, not in any absolute sense.Continue reading
There is perhaps no meteorological event more aesthetically pleasing than a heavy snowfall. The sense that crystalized vapor carries in it the transformative power to invigorate the mundane and ornament the begrimed is among the most wonderful attributes of winter. Yet the transformative powers of snow are not limited to mere aesthetics, for it also carries in it the capacity to transform a public space, and consequently the very essence of a neighborhood.
A street is not often understood as a public space in our current conception of the word. For our lifetimes and the lifetimes of everyone we have ever personally known, streets have been synonymous with motion—synonymous with roads. And the conflation between street and road is indeed an unfortunate one, whereby our confusion is carried through to its design, and set in place by concrete. More precisely, a road is a way from one place to another whereas a street is a place in and of itself.
The Eternal Complexities of Time Travel
If you could travel back in time, what would you do? The answer given to the point of banality is to kill Hitler as an infant. Yet, surely this would be a thankless job. Without any knowledge of the atrocities he would beget, you would certainly not enter the canons of history as the savior who prevented the deaths of millions from war and genocide. You would receive no recognition from the men, women, and children who would have come to be murdered by his regime, for no one would have ever known that they were to be in danger. Rather, you would be known only to the locals of a small Austrian town as the scumbag who killed a defenseless child.
Don’t get me wrong; I understand the impulse. Who wouldn’t want to save the lives of countless innocents, recognition be damned? No doubt, you are a selfless individual who would gladly take one for the team. What I have a harder time understanding though is how a great many of us would enthusiastically defy the laws of physics only to be sent to the gallows shortly thereafter, while paying so little attention to actions we can take in the present which will assuredly prevent deaths of the more quotidian variety in our own future. Continue reading